[OPE-L:6169] more Hanley

From: Rakesh Bhandari (rakeshb@stanford.edu)
Date: Fri Nov 09 2001 - 14:47:25 EST

One of the world's stranger relationships 

By Charles J. Hanley 
AP Special Correspondent 

Posted April 16, 1997 

EDITOR'S NOTE -- King Abdel Aziz brought sheep for slaughter. President 
Roosevelt brought his own Navy cruiser. From the start, at that 1945
meeting, Saudi Arabia and America were an odd couple. This is the first in a 
three-part series looking at where the ''special relationship'' is headed.

PRINCE SULTAN AIR BASE, Saudi Arabia -- Whenever she goes to town, Donna 
Caswell first straps on her body armor. Then the U.S. Air Force
sergeant drapes herself from head to toe in a black robe.

The first protects her against America's Saudi enemies, the second against the 
ire of its Saudi

''It's, well, interesting,'' Caswell says.

A half-century after they first joined forces, the ''special relationship'' 
between the United States
and Saudi Arabia stands at the heart of global geopolitics -- and at the top of 
any list of
''interesting'' alliances.

One partner is dynamic and democratic, the other traditional and feudal. One is 
open, the other
closed and repressive. One celebrates diversity, the other hides half its 
population in veiled

A single shared interest binds superpower to desert kingdom: One needs to buy 
oil, the other
needs to sell it.

''I don't know much about the Saudis,'' another Air Force sergeant, Sal 
Galaviz, admitted to a visitor
to this remote base. ''All I know is they're our allies -- 'good guys,' like 

But the ''good guy'' marriage of convenience is proving, in some ways, an 
inconvenient one.

Irritations and disagreements trouble the military partnership. Two terror 
bombs have brutally announced grassroots Saudi opposition to the Americans.
And Saudi infidelity to one of its vows -- to expand its defense forces -- may 
eventually take some charm out of the relationship.

                            About 20,000 U.S. servicemen and women are on duty 
in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Persian Gulf, keeping an
                            eye on Iraq, Iran and the industrial world's oil 

                            From this tent city on the desert's edge, some 80 
Air Force warplanes, ready to defend the kingdom, fly patrols over
                            southern Iraq. Three hundred miles away, the Gulf's 
waters are crowded with up to 35 Navy warships. Scattered
                            elsewhere, equipment is being ''prepositioned'' for 
thousands of Army soldiers to be flown in during a crisis.

                            The U.S. military commitment strengthened as 
America's dependence on imported oil grew through the 1990s. Few
                            contrary voices were heard in Washington.

                            ''There still seems to be a consensus that it is in 
our best interests to be there in the way we are,'' Ray Mabus, until
                            recently American ambassador to Saudi Arabia, said 
in a telephone interview.

That ''way'' is expensive. Analysts estimate the Persian Gulf commitment costs 
U.S. taxpayers at least $40 billion a year. In some Washington quarters,
that looks excessive.

''How do we want to deal with our energy problems? By having a war every 
several years?'' asked Joseph Romm, the Energy Department's conservation
chief. ''Clearly you need to have an approach that reduces American dependence 
on foreign oil.''

Mounting costs are also now raising questions in Congress. Senior Republican 
senators say they want a review of what they call ''serious policy issues''
regarding the Gulf commitment.

Other U.S. officials have a more immediate concern: Local hostility to the 
American troops is inflaming the opposition to the Saudi monarchy. The
''solution'' -- the U.S. military shield -- is becoming part of the problem.

In Riyadh, the capital, Saudi officials sound reassuring.

''I don't think there's a strong resentment of the Americans. They're not a 
colonial force,'' said royal adviser Abdel-Aziz Al-Fayez. But he conceded, 
everybody has the same feeling.''

Since the bombings, which together killed 24 Americans in November 1995 and 
last June, the U.S. profile has been lowered. American forces have been
consolidated in two locations -- a high-security compound outside Riyadh and 
the Prince Sultan Air Base 80 miles south of the capital.

The few who travel off-base follow strict security rules. And women, like 
postal specialist Caswell, must also don the full-length ''abaya,'' to avoid
harassment by Muslim religious police enforcing ''the veil'' on females.

Everyday dealings are tense in other ways, too. The Air Force must disguise 
chapels as ''morale centers,'' for example, because other religions are 
here. And a Saudi commander recently declared the U.S. side of this base off-
limits to his troops because 400 Air Force women work there.

Larger handicaps also burden the U.S. mission:

--The Saudis won't allow U.S. Navy vessels to make port visits.

--They rebuffed an American proposal to stockpile military equipment on Saudi 
soil for a ''crisis'' brigade.

--They refused to allow the Air Force to hit Iraqi targets from here last 
September during reprisal strikes for Iraqi military operations in northern 

--Since bankrolling the Gulf War, the Saudis have declined to contribute to 
U.S. operations like a huge 1994 deployment of American troops in Kuwait.

Although little cash is forthcoming for operations, Pentagon officials are 
quick to point out the Saudis are writing big checks for other things -- $62 
in U.S.-made armaments between 1990 and 1995.

Saudi Arabia's role as the U.S. defense industry's biggest foreign customer is 
a special link in the special relationship. It also points up a shortcoming: 
many ultramodern warships stay in port and too many missiles in boxes because 
the Saudis are undermanned and undertrained.

''Their ranks are too thin,'' a U.S. admiral in the region said privately. 
''After a week's operation, they're tired.''

After the Gulf War, the Saudis said they would double their armed forces to 
200,000 men by
1998. They would be a ''pillar'' of Gulf defense, the Pentagon said. Islamic 
clergy, ashamed the
nation had been rescued by non-Muslims, petitioned the king for even more -- a 

But international experts estimate Saudi strength at only 105,000 as of last 
year, when Saudi
defense spending was actually reduced by 9 percent. The Defense Ministry 
declined a reporter's
requests to discuss such subjects.

''Saudi Arabia is pretending it is building a strong army,'' concluded Said 
Aburish, London-based
author of a study of the ruling House of Saud.

He and other knowledgeable observers believe the Saud family faces a dilemma: 
The U.S.
military presence is provocative to their people, but a powerful Saudi army 
might threaten family

And so the odd couple continues to dig in -- side by side, but not too close -- 
in the desert. And
what about when Saddam Hussein, the enemy, eventually falls from power in Iraq? 
Will the U.S.
military leave?

The Saudi ambassador in Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, says he sees no 
need for a ''permanent structure.'' But one Gulf specialist, former Israeli
government adviser Alexander Bligh, sees a different outcome.

''As long as there is oil in Saudi Arabia,'' he predicted, ''the Americans will 
be there.'' 


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